RUSH STURGES IS RESTING AT home during the last week of April when a kayaking friend calls to tell him the news: The Bus is coming. Normally this info would thrill Sturges, but now he has mixed emotions. On one hand, he's never ridden The Bus, and he knows the experience would be epic. But he also feels bad. Really bad.
Sturges has just returned to Otter Bar, his folks' kayaking school and home in Forks of Salmon, Calif., after two months in Uganda, where he paddled a treacherous section of the White Nile, and Madagascar, where his crew became the first to run a section of Class V rapids on the Ikopa River. Now the 21-year-old kayaker, filmmaker and co-founder of Young Gun Productions is suffering from insomnia, dizziness and delirium, all a reaction to Lariam, his antimalaria medication. Instead of paddling, Sturges wants to die.
When his head finally clears a few days later, he tells his parents that he's flying east. He quickly tosses two dry tops, booties, a helmet, a paddle, a six-foot Dagger kayak, a Sony HDR-FX1 digital video camera, jeans, T-shirts and clean underwear into a bag. Peter and Kristy Sturges don't ask their son how long he'll be gone. Rush doesn't know.
Forty-eight hours later, he's sitting with kayaking buddies at The Honest Lawyer, a restaurant in downtown Ottawa. The crew is dropping shots of tequila and double-fisting free Kokanee beer at a charity event for two paddling friends who want to raise biofuel awareness by driving a vegetable-oil-fueled Toyota through North and South America. Clearly, the kayaking world has evolved. The stereotype of a paddler-a mellow 40-year-old rocking Patagonia and Birkenstocks-has been brushed aside by an amped, fresh-out-of-college crowd decked in baggy blue jeans and skate shoes, bouncing to Young Jeezy. This generation has abandoned the traditional paddling pursuits of slalom and river running and instead brings skateboard-, surf- and snowboard-inspired moves to the white water.
Across the room, Sturges spies his Young Gun partners: Brooks Baldwin, a wispy, outgoing 22-year-old from Montana, and Marlow Long, a stocky, soft-spoken North Carolinian, also 22, who breaks off a celebratory jig when the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Montreal Canadiens on the large-screen TV. "Those are my boys," Long growls.
As the night progresses, it becomes obvious that the true stars of the event are not the charity recipients but the Young Guns. Other kayakers drop by to ask about their recent trips and to congratulate them on the release of their latest revolutionary video, Dynasty, which follows New Reign (2004) and The Next Generation (2002). The trio shoot footage with their own highdefinition cameras and edit it on their computers, blending high-adrenaline action, pulsing soundtracks and their own hard-charging lifestyle.
Depending on whom you ask, the Young Guns are either kayaking rock stars or overhyped contrivances. Whatever your opinion, says Brad Ludden, a two-time world freestyle medalist, "They're like Dogtown and Z-Boys-they're revolutionizing kayaking."
The next morning, Sturges, Baldwin and Long drive 90 minutes northwest of Ottawa. Their destination: a point on the Ottawa River where snowmelt from the Laurentian Highlands hits submerged rock and forms a perfect stationary eight-foot wave called Bus Eater-or simply, The Bus. For much of the year, the wave is too small or sloppy to ride. But each spring, when a nearby depth gauge reads 16 feet, the kayak network buzzes. "It only comes in a few days a year," says Patrick Camblin, a paddler from Ontario. "But when it does, it's the best kayaking wave on earth." Think of it as nature's version of a wave park.
By 9 a.m., amid towering pines and ravenous black flies, Sturges & Co. have dropped into the frigid waters, joining 15 to 20 others who have answered the call of The Bus. Sturges waits his turn in a lineup of stubby, gumball-color kayaks. Baldwin and Long climb onto a Jet Ski. Long drives while Baldwin perches behind him, facing backward so he can pixelate the action with his plastic-encased video camera. He is shooting for Young Guns' next release, tentatively titled State of the Art and scheduled for a 2008 release.
Finally, Sturges is up. He grabs a rope attached to a tree on the island that splits the river and pulls himself against the fierce current and into position on The Bus. The action begins when Sturges reaches the top of the wave. There, he leans forward and slides down the face. He thrusts backward, then pops up so that his kayak is clear of the water. Once airborne, he uses his hips, shoulders, head and arms to whip around 360 degrees. On other runs, he locks into his rhythm and does front flips, Pan Ams and Air Screws, moves that combine spins and flips. Occasionally, he misses a beat and gets chundered, a kayaking term that means he is flushed off the wave and washed 100 yards downstream. Baldwin captures every run.
HE YOUNG GUNS MET IN 2001 at the now-defunct Adventure Quest, a private canoe and kayak prep school in Woodstock, Vt. All three were accomplished freestylers when they arrived. Long bought his first boat, a seven-foot stubby, with money saved from a summer job washing dishes; by his senior year, he had earned sponsorship from kayak company Liquidlogic. Baldwin grew up paddling at his parents' rafting company and kayaking school in Montana. Sturges began kayaking at age 9, and at 14, he started videotaping vacationers at his folks' school. He edited the video on his iMac and earned several hundred dollars a week selling the DVDs to his parents' clients. He transferred into Adventure Quest as a junior, already confident of his skills on both sides of the camera.
The teens bonded quickly. "We were kind of the bad kids," says Baldwin, though their badness was relatively tame. They tossed cans of baked beans into a school campfire just to watch them explode, and they were known to enjoy a drink every now and then. Filmmaking cemented their relationship, which grew out of shared strengths: Long had the cool image, Baldwin a knack for business, Sturges the technical savvy. They formed Young Guns in 2002, and their timing was perfect.
Until the group came along, kayak videos were primarily either of the how-to variety or documentaries of expeditions. But a couple of elements came together shortly before the Young Guns' graduation that allowed them to become video innovators. Manufacturers started making shorter, more maneuverable boats to run steeper drops and tougher rapids. Paddlers learned to flip and spin the kayaks, then took their tricks to stationary waves. The emerging freestyle kayaking movement was ripe for a high-energy video remix.
In creating The Next Generation, their first work, the Young Guns borrowed heavily from ski, skate and surf videos, with emphasis on quick, intense action shots. "The old kayaking videos didn't speak for us," Sturges says. "We wanted to get young people stoked." The Next Generation caught the attention of Teva, which sponsored New Reign, and that prompted Volkswagen to sign on to help pay for the helicopters, Jet Skis and travel needed for the full-on sensory assault of Dynasty.
The video is set to a mix of rap and hard rock, and the kayakers not only hit The Bus but also run rapids and drop over waterfalls. On his first descent through 10 kilometers of Class V rapids (among the most treacherous) in Madagascar, Sturges scores a ride that's part roller coaster, part rinse cycle. He speeds through sections as wide as a football field and as narrow as a bowling lane, gets tossed through seething white water, plunges off 10-foot ledges, navigates past jutting boulders, disappears into roiling foam-all while avoiding the holes hungry to pull him under the surface and the rocks poised to break bones. "I call it survival boating," Sturges says. "It's so fast and intense. It's fun, but scary at times."
The signature move in Dynasty is his leap off the 32-foot Maruia Falls in New Zealand. It isn't the height that stuns viewers (the record for a waterfall drop is 105'6") but the trick. As Sturges goes over the edge, he pulls a never-been-done move known as a Hail Mary, or a front flip. "As I neared the lip, I hucked it forward as hard as I could," he says. "I looked straight down the drop, and my head went under the waterfall, then back out again. My only fear was underrotating and boofing it, landing flat instead of on an angle. That's how you break your back."
The Young Guns videos also hawk lifestyle. The paddlers drink. They put on boxing gloves and spar. They break-dance. Sturges raps. A sleeping kayaker wakes to find his head and eyebrows shaved. At a 2005 bash in Skookumchuck, British Columbia, Baldwin broke his collarbone wrestling Sturges, and Steve Fisher, the world's most revered big-river paddler, ended up with stitches in his head in a furniture-breaking melee. "This is the Young Guns experience," says Tyler Bradt, a kayaking friend. "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space."
It's an attitude that puts the Young Guns front and center in the kayaking world. "They're pushing the sport," says Eugene Buchanan, the 43-year-old editor of Paddler Magazine. "They possess the age, marketability and presence to get attention." But kayaking legend and boat designer Eric Jackson speaks for a lot of paddlers when he asks, "Why are these kids getting all this attention when guys have been doing great things for years? Why isn't ESPN writing about the best slalom racers?"
Some old-timers think the Young Guns phenomenon is less spontaneous creativity than premeditated marketing. "They appear to be 20-year-old, testosterone-crazed guys who throw things on a laptop," says Mark Singleton, executive director of the American Whitewater Organization. "But they are skilled, sharp, calculating." Words like "hype," "self-promotion" and "orchestration" are often used to describe their antics.
The criticism can sting. "Sometimes it's hard to take," Long says. "We're doing what we love. We're not even making much money." Only a handful of paddlers support themselves solely via their sport, but that financial freedom is the Young Guns' ultimate goal. They crave the ability to go kayaking wherever they want, when they want and with whomever they want. In their scripted world, video sales will provide a creative outlet and attract sponsors to finance their freedom. "We're not trying to make documentaries," Sturges says. "We're making rock kayak porn."
FTER THREE DAYS OF SPIRITED wave riding, video shooting, sleeping in vans and carousing, the Young Guns posse sits down for dinner at a diner 30 minutes from The Bus. Plates of ribs, nachos and poutine (Canada's unofficial diner dish of french fries, cheese and gravy) fill the table. The paddlers mull possibilities for their next destination because the Ottawa River is dropping and The Bus is departing. Northern Quebec? Asia? Africa? Conversation swirls around the table like an eddy.
"Let's run the Congo."
"We need to befriend the government. Give them some chickens or something."
"Aren't there, like, two governments? That's the problem."
"Do we need guns?"
"Get, like, a military escort?"
"The north part of the country is chill."
"We're safe in the boats. You go to shore, you get messed up."
"I've got a contact in the UN."
The conversation is telling. Part of the Young Guns' allure is their freshness. They're always on the move, looking for the next spectacular locale, the next Big Shot, the one that will keep the revolution alive. They don't believe in limitations in the form of "You can't shoot here" or "That move is impossible." So the next day, they pile into vans and head not to Africa but 45 miles north to Quebec. Sturges is eager to ride the Grande Chute, a 60-foot waterfall on the Coulonge River. Because it's a popular tourist stop, particularly in the spring when the water is high, they park half a mile up the road so that gear doesn't draw attention (none of the crew knows whether riding the falls is legal). They walk past Amish visitors and hop a fence to get close enough to the chute to feel the spray and thunder.
"That's pretty burly," Sturges says as the trio moves perilously close to the edge. The ride would consist of two stages: a tight, 25-foot drop to a ledge, followed by a 35-foot drop to the base of the falls. Both drops require precision lines; if the first isn't landed properly, the second will be a disaster. Doubt begins to rise in the kayakers' minds.
On film, the Young Guns appear reckless, but that perception is a product of planning and patience. "The misconception is that they're screwing around," Fisher says. "But you have to work on and off the water. Young Guns do that."
After an hour of deliberation, they make the call: "Not for this cowboy," Sturges says. "Not today." The water volume is too high, and a large branch juts into the prime line on the first drop. As they walk to the van, talk spins to another spot, another wave, 10 hours deeper into Quebec. Just knowing it's there is a rush. "I know I'll never be able to put the camera down," says Sturges, his urge to run the falls offset by common sense. "Sometimes you just have to call it a day."
The revolution will wait for tomorrow.
Are the Young Guns good for kayaking? E-mail us at email@example.com.
PARK AND PLAY
If all goes to plan-and yes, the kayaking world has a plan-the sport's next great paddler will be cultivated in Charlotte. Not because south-central North Carolina is home to natural, world-class white water, but because the city is making its own rapids.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center-the largest artificial paddling playground on the planet-opens Aug. 30 near Charlotte. The $35 million park features the world's longest artificial whitewater course (4,000 feet), three channels of Class III and IV rapids, a conveyor belt to transport paddlers (kayakers, canoeists, rafters), pumps to recirculate chlorinated water and an electric bill that could hit $1 million a year.
But paddlers aren't the only athletes hitting nature-mimicking parks. Mountain bikers can ride Ray Petro's Indoor Mountain Bike Park in Cleveland. The Ron Jon Surfpark, opening later this year in Orlando, can replicate 40 of the world's best surf breaks. And developers in Dallas are finalizing plans for the CoolZone Winterplex, a 20-story-tall, $375 million ski mountain spread across 60 acres. Riders will cruise on Snowflex, which mimics packed powder.
Purists may scoff at fake parks, no matter how realistic. But there are advantages. Park-and-play sites (park the car, play) make it easy to reach out and touch nature. The drawback: While nature is free, you pay for convenience. A six-month Ray Petro pass costs $289. A two-hour session at Ron Jon will cost $59.95. And Charlotte kayakers pay $15 for a 90-minute rush.
Who knows how much Texans will pay to ski in the Big D. -T.S.